THEATER | Win-win: David Sedaris's "Santaland Diaries" presented by Frank Theatre at Hennepin Stages and by Theatre Limina at the Bryant-Lake Bowl

Joe Leary in Frank Theatre's The Santaland Diaries. Photo courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.

"Dear Diary,

I know I don't write much, but it is the holidays, and I'm starting to stress a bit so I figure that it'd be good to vent and get some things off my chest..."

After seeing back-to-back theatrical productions of The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris over this past weekend, I chucked my diary. Who needs it when Sedaris one-ups any stress I may have by telling us the true life tale of Crumpet the Macy's Elf (himself) working in the weeks before Christmas. You can just imagine Crumpet exclaiming, "Pour me a scotch, Santa, and let me tell you how ridiculous humanity can be during the holiday season."

The two productions, one staged by Frank Theatre at Hennepin Stages and the other staged by Theatre Limina at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, are different enough that one need not say, "Oh, I've seen that already." I'm not necessarily recommending that you do a Santaland Diary two-fer happy hour weekend like I did, but if you're a Sedaris fan, seeing both won't be a disappointment.

the santaland diaries, presented by frank theatre through december 31 at hennepin stages. for tickets ($25) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org. the santaland diaries by david sedaris, presented by theatre limina through december 16 at the bryant-lake bowl. for tickets ($15) and information, see bryantlakebowl.com.

Frank Theatre's performance is a one-man show starring Joe Leary, directed by Wendy Knox. The set design is almost as spectacular as Dayton's (okay, okay, Macy's) eighth-floor auditorium holiday hoopla. Green velvet curtains, snowflake light filters, two Christmas trees, lots of tinsel, lovely wrapped packages, and a super-Santa-shack prop propel you right into the heart of department store display.

Leary does an amazing job up there all by his elfin-self (I'd say f'in-self in the spirit of the performance, but that might be a bit much). That can't be easy. His delivery is sharp, his coy interaction with the audience (a highlight being when a front row gal shrieked as he began to change from street clothes into elf clothes) was perfect with an eyebrow-raised glance, and his performance of Billie Holiday's imagined "Away in a Manger" solo rocks. The costume is a detailed extravaganza, somewhere between the Lollipop Kids vests and a King of Hearts tux, complete with to-die-for curled-toe velvet booty shoes. And the sound quality is excellent: you can understand every word, which is good, as you do want to hear every word that Sedaris wrote. Each one is as cynical, poignant, and/or sarcastic as the next. You do not, however, want to bring the children, as some adults who sat next to me did. I'm hoping those misguided guardians get the coal they deserve this year. Geesh.

Down at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, three elves and a two-piece band bring down the house. It's kind of like going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show—unlike the new Frank Theatre production, the Theatre Limina show has been running for years, and there are regulars who know the words! It's one fun and funky night in the cramped little space. Cast members Lorinda Chagnon, Ryan Smith, and Kristina Solomon take turns with Sedaris's monologue. That's not necessarily better than the solo performance, but it does make things interesting. My personal favorite was a scene depicting two couples and their children from New Jersey. The dialogue is cynical and sad (as Sedaris is wont to be), but the way Chagnon and Smith chomp on imaginary gum, grab imaginary boobs, and slap each other was way better than seeing the real deal in Newark.

Jeffery Perkey directs the trio of Crumpet elves and gives us well-timed breaks/entertainment by the "Misfit Toys" band (Kyle Delahunt and Colin Kerns). You need to not mind the f-bomb flying past your ears, but the lyrics are fantastic, a little bit like (I imagine) Santa might sound if he drove an 18-wheeler for Walmart. There's no real set to speak of, although the Limina troupe have a collection of plastic Christmas statues that almost rivals the Midway Menards.

I can see why one or both of these performances could become a Christmas classic for some. Personally, it was a challenge to accept anyone else's presentation of Sedaris's story—you can hear Sedaris tell it himself on an audiobook. But both performances are excellent in their own right, so if you're cool with not hearing the story straight from the horse's mouth, by all means, go. There's a poignant send-off message from Crumpet at the end that helps a person ease out of the theater and back to the mean streets of holiday shoppers and misdirected good will (my favorite being "save $10 while spending $100"). Oh, and did I mention that at both venues, you can ask Santa (a.k.a. your server) for a Scotch?

These productions are featured in the Daily Planet's complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you'll know who's been naughty and who's been nice.

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    Betsy Gabler

    Betsy Gabler is a full-time marketing manager for a local not-for-profit, a part-time graphic designer, and consults about small business social media and development strategies. She has a M.S. from the U of MN in visual communication and design. Being a supportive aunt is her favorite thing in life.